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In our opinion: Utah mask requirement is the right move

It should have come earlier, but it is bound to make a difference now in an outbreak that is reaching dangerous levels

SHARE In our opinion: Utah mask requirement is the right move

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Call it a mandate or a requirement, the Utah Health Department’s new directive for everyone in the state to wear a mask whenever they congregate — even at high school sporting events — is the right move.

It should have come earlier, but it is bound to make a difference now in an outbreak that is reaching dangerous levels.

Also good was the decision to replace the old color-coded alert level system with a series of metrics based on caseloads, positive test rates and hospital capacity. The color-coded system worked well when the pandemic was new and little was known about the transmission of COVID-19. It became too vague and meaningless as time went on, however, especially as it became clear elected officials were not going to move back toward higher levels of restrictions on the economy, no matter how high case numbers went. 

The new system is not easy for the average person to understand, but it contains benchmarks based on data.

The overriding takeaway from Tuesday’s press conference, however, is that Utahns need to begin wearing masks whenever they are near other people. Had such a statewide requirement been in place weeks ago, today’s number of positive cases, and the overwhelming load on hospitals, could have been avoided. 

Gov. Gary Herbert was right on Tuesday when he said the “current situation is serious for public health and our economy.” Allowing businesses to stay open means little when daily new case levels are so high many people are afraid to venture out.

The governor said about 15% of the state’s intensive care beds are currently used to treat COVID-19 patients. As of Wednesday, the state reported that intensive care units are 72% full. That percentage varies by hospital. The University of Utah Health’s intensive care unit is at 95%, the governor said.

Reports are circulating of patients being transferred from one hospital to another due to space concerns. Health care workers are spread thin and overworked.

Meanwhile, the rolling seven-day average of new cases is 1,204, with 1,144 reported Wednesday, alone.

University of Utah Health’s director, Rich Saunders, said Tuesday, “Until change happens, we already know where we’re headed.” That is, we know hospitals will be overcrowded. Makeshift intensive care units will be needed. Doctors and nurses will be overwhelmed. More people will die.

Utah has an admirably low rate of death per number of cases reported during this pandemic. But every batch of new cases translates into more people who die, and many more who suffer from long-term, perhaps permanent aftereffects. That has to be viewed as unacceptable to every Utahn, even the young and healthy who have been far too cavalier in their attitudes toward the virus.

Enforcement always is a question when authorities impose mandates. How will the government make sure people comply? 

Frankly, that shouldn’t be an issue in a state with the highest rate of volunteerism in the nation, where people willingly and frequently give of their time to help others. Strapping on a mask hardly qualifies as a sacrifice. Doing so willingly, however, is an act of love that could pay dividends much higher than that of removing debris after a storm or cleaning someone’s yard.

It is a small act of kindness that shows you care about others more than you do about politics or any display of defiant freedom. 

Now is the time for Utahns to rally in support of each other. Just put on a mask.